Sanctions might be working, but North Korean politics are still crazy

Analyzing the rumor that Kim Jong-Un might not be North Korea’s next designated “Dear Leader”Brilliant Comrade” after all, Brian Fung speculates that Pyongyang’s internal political dynamics might just be responding to the pressure of UN sanctions.

Without reading too much into it, the announcement raises a handful of questions. One: does this mean UN sanctions are having an effect? Jong-Un’s close association with the North Korean military could be a liability at a time when the regime’s funds have been frozen overseas, and its cargo ships are under surveillance. Picking a less militant leader could prompt the UN Security Council to loosen the sanctions, or lift them entirely.

I’d like to believe it, but I’m not sold. What last month’s missile tests seemed to indicate was that North Korea’s military hardliners were making their presence felt, responding to questions of Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor with an emphatic “we’re still the ones in control.” And while I wouldn’t preclude the possibility of North Korea’s leaders amping up their rhetoric to the outside world as a way to conceal any possible internal moderation, threats of a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” don’t exactly befit a state that wants to move away from a political system dominated by the military.

This is not to say that the UN sanctions aren’t working. As Brian’s FP colleague James Downie wrote yesterday, the North Korean ship that a U.S. destroyer has been tracking — and that may or may not have been carrying banned nuclear materials — abruptly turned around. This could indeed have been an elaborate North Korean ruse, as James suggests, but, as some of Barack Obama’s more hawkish detractors would be far too quick to note, counting on the carefully measured U.S. president to launch a precipitous military strike seems a rather ill-considered gambit. More likely, I’d wager, that North Korea didn’t feel so comfortable moving its cargo about with a U.S. destroyer breathing down its neck.

(image from flickr user jonprc under a Creative Commons license)